Archive for January, 2014

To what extent does your company facilitate social networking between employees split by geographical or organisational distance, or with (existing or potential) clients and business partners?  What’s the value of this social capital to the company (i.e. the connections within and between social networks as well as connections among individuals).  How does it change the nature of opportunities and constraints each person faces, and the flow-on effects to the team and company as a whole?

IBM recently published its research surrounding Beehive (an experimental internal platform designed to blur the boundaries of work and home, professional and personal, and business and fun).  The report provides empirical evidence of the power of nurturing social capital in the enterprise. IBM Social Networking Research.pdf

The researchers studied issues associated with adoption, usage, motivations, and impact of social networking in the workplace, and they found that:

[E]ven with limited use of Beehive, over a relatively short amount of time, there are associations between types of usage and … different types of social capital. When someone is using Beehive for meeting new contacts, they report a greater interest in making these types of contacts at the company in general.

When someone is using Beehive for keeping up with known colleagues, both in their workgroup and in their extended network of loose ties, they report having closer ties with their immediate network (bonding social capital), a higher sense of citizenship (willingness to help the greater good of the company), and greater access to both new people and expertise within the company [(bridging social capital)].

And finally, the more intensely someone uses Beehive (meaning more frequent visits and stronger associations with the community on the site) the higher they report their social capital is, across all measures. They have closer bonds to their network, they have a greater willingness to contribute to the company, they have a greater interest in connecting globally, have greater access to new people, and a greater ability to access expertise.”

As IBM has illustrated with its customised Beehive-development, supporting social networking in the organisation means more than simply bring in-house functionality from (public) social networking tools.

Instead, social networking functionality should be integrated not only with existing information systems, but also with the particular needs of the organisation to enable people to grow informal networks which exist alongside formal structures, and fully exploit the wealth of information and expertise circulating in and around the organisation.  The latter is very difficult for public social networking sites to deliver.

As with any change initiative, building the right adoption models are equally important as building the right architectural/technical models.  Adoption models raise important issues around the situation of social tools, control of people’s (private) information/discussions, and building on existing networking behaviours, to ensure that levels of information flow and control match needs, cultures and expectations.

Here are a few thoughts in that regard:

  • Well ‘situated’ social tools: This is a concept that we’ve talked alot about (e.g. here, here and here) as it helps in lowering the barrier to adoption.  By ensuring the networking platform is well integrated with key existing information systems and social tools, as people contribute and work with information, trails are automatically created, which when aggregated in profile/personal pages, automatically reflect people’s social network and information connections.  The information is constantly refreshed and kept current without extra effort on the part of the individual user.  People can readily identify who’s working with who on what, or who is connected with who and may be able to make an introduction or support a proposal/project idea.
  • Technology and communication preferences: To maximise involvement, tools need to be made available which reflect people’s preferences for technology and communication style.  As we are seeing from the public domain, there should be a greater emphasis on presence sharing, status updates and other ad hoc style exchanges during people’s work, which can be rapidly embellished and/or responded to by others.  These quick fire exchanges can then form a feed of information in the same way that friendfeed streams information.
  • Professional and personal ‘identities’:  For some people, the line between professional and private lives is increasingly opaque.  But we can’t assume that professional and personal identities will merge comfortably.  As Doug Cornelius points out, as colleagues and clients become friends, we may want to share information with them that we don’t want to share with others.  In the same way that some people use Facebook to keep in touch with their freinds and LinkedIn for their business contacts, people should have the ability to manage ‘professional’ or ‘public’ and ‘private’ profiles in a way which suits their desired level of openness or privacy.
  • Intelligent social networks:  To be even more useful, the networking systems needs to give us a little bit of extra information – like a pat on the back for having participated.  For instance we should see not only ‘who is connected with who’, but also the proximity of people’s connections based on shared attributes, such as tags, groups, communities, and signals based on RSS from social news-reading and interactions (e.g. visits to or comments on posts).  So if we give a little we get alot.

Adoption issues aside, another sticking point for getting top-down buy-in for a social networking project in the company is the difficulty of measuring the value that social capital.  This was one of the caveats the IBM research team highlighted in their report, i.e. the results are indicative of a relationship between use and the measures they used, but are not causal.  As Bill Ives rightly points out, the next steps for us will be to see how we can illustrate the relationship with improved performance and bottom line results.  Your thoughts on this as always are welcome!

Thanks to Bill Ives for reporting the IBM research.

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Think for a minute about how you used to book your holidays, buy your music, find an address or select insurance – 10 or even 5 years ago?  Do you even bother to search for things these days or do you just rely on the recommendations from your network via Facebook, Twitter, Zemanta or even Amazon?

These prolific and radical changes are not limited to social and consumer interactions on the internet.  They also impact the nature, shape and conduct of business both internally and externally.

Companies are increasingly working in networks, whether they be loosely coupled or tightly integrated because of technology and the globalisation that technology has brought with it.  Those networks are essentially virtual entities, and this trend will accelerate over the coming years.  To be in or join a network, people need insight and connections, as well as appropriate processes capable of supporting various business needs across the virtual entity.  That signals fundamental shifts in the way people do business and the underlying business models.

This was one of the issues Leo Apotheker (co-CEO and a member of the Executive Board of SAP AG) and Andrew McAfee discussed during an interview with Charlie Rose earlier this week.

It echoes the message from Pisano & Verganti in their article Which Kind of Collaboration is Right for You? (Harvard Business Review December 2008):

In an era when great ideas can sprout from any corner of the world and IT has dramatically reduced the cost of accessing them, it’s now conventional wisdom that virtually no company should innovate on its own. … [But] greater choice has made the perennial management challenge of selecting the best options much more difficult. … [How] open or closed should your firm’s network of collaborators be? And who should decide which problems the network will tackle and which solutions will be adopted?

Those opportunities and challenges are equally applicable within organisations, with changes affecting the way people are now able to work together and the nature and style of management. Everything happens and needs to happen so much faster just so businesses can stay in the same (market) position and not loose ground to competitors.  But whilst the technology is there to expedite work processes and help people work better and smarter, often barriers in the form of cultural, organisational and behavioural changes are stifling.

As McAfee points out, it’s in this ever-changing technology context that management is being pressed more than ever to rethink the boundary between (i) control -> dictating how things will be executed and by who and (ii) autonomy -> allowing people to organise themselves and seeing what emerges. Frederic Baud explores similar themes in his interesting post Will Enterprise 2.0 ever enter big organisations? More particularly, he considers whether an organisation viewing itself as an internal market where resources can freely recombine to pursue emerging projects can greatly augment the output by loosing control of the nature of that output.  The ensuing discussion is also worth a read!

In any case, the ‘control’ model prevails in many orgaisations, where decision-making processes are closed or simply pay lip-service to employee involvement, the few decide for the many based on their view of what people want, and networking of information and expertise occurs in very localised instances.

Yet when we look around for examples of successful businesses to emulate, who do we look to?  Google?  Proctor & Gamble? Toyota?  Hubbards? Headshift 😉 ? There are plenty more.  And what do they tell us?  Well, to quote Eric Schmidt – Google CEO (The Mckinsey Quarterly November 2008):

There’s a lot of evidence that groups make better decisions than individuals. Especially when the groups are selected to be among the smartest and most interesting people. The wisdom of crowds argument is that you can operate a company by consensus, which is, indeed, how Google operates.  …

One of the things that we’ve tried very hard to avoid at Google is the sort of divisional structure and the business unit structure that prevents collaboration across units. It’s difficult. So, I understand why people want to build business units, and have their presidents. But by doing that you cut down the informal ties that, in an open culture, drive so much collaboration. If people in the organization understand the values of the company, they should be able to self organize to work on the most interesting problems. And if they haven’t, or are not able to do that, you haven’t talked to them about what’s important. You haven’t built a shared value culture.

For me, those views are examples of organisational learning theory in practice.  I’ve described the themes within that theory before, and for present purposes would just like to reiterate a couple of those themes:

  1. Learning requires challenging existing mindsets that form the basis of (possibly out-of-date) behaviour.
  2. Managers should encourage the generation and spreading of new ideas and practices about purpose, values and vision.
  3. That vision requires the maximum number of people to contribute to and share a picture of the where the organisation is going, and how personal and business goals coincide.
  4. Feedback is central to this system as it is critical to learning and adaptation.

Those ideas have been around alot longer than much of the technology that has caused such radical change to the way things are done in the public domain.  That same technology is steadily entering and disrupting the way things are and can be done in organisations.  But for that technology to be of real value, progress needs to occur simultaneously in respect of each of those ‘organisational learning’ elements.  And if you’re reading this thinking that this type of change doesn’t apply to your business or your industry sector, best you start with #1 on that list.

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